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Dr. Jonny Bowden Headshot

Eating Well is a Revolutionary Act

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Back in 1950, the husband and wife team of Eleanor and Sheldon Glueck -- both criminologists and Harvard Law School professors -- published the results of their lifelong study of juvenile delinquency ("Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency"). Now I didn't attend Harvard Law, but my father did, and here's how he summed up the Glueck's teaching for me: If you take two identical twin brothers, both raised in poverty, both with an absent father, both in the identical drug infested neighborhood, one (no surprise) will turn out to be a drug dealer.

One, however, will turn out to be a judge.

Moral of the story: Poverty doesn't "cause" delinquency.

The Gluecks' research is frequently cited by denizens of the right as an ode to personal responsibility and as a rebuttal to liberals who blame bad outcomes on social conditions. You can be born in poverty in rural Mississippi to a unwed teenage mother, grow up in inner city Milwaukee and still turn out to be Oprah. (This information appears to help the Robert Novaks of the world sleep better at night.) A small percentage of any population will turn out to be a Bill Gates or a Jeffrey Dahmer regardless of what environment they were raised in. But for the rest of us, environment is a powerful determinant of outcomes.

Take obesity. As Bryan Walsh recently pointed out in TIME magazine, the "tsunami of obesity" is a highly selective one, discriminating by race (higher numbers for blacks, still higher for Mexican Americans), by income (more than twice the number of obese kids in families below the poverty line compared to families earning 40K a year) and by geography (higher rates in rural areas, worst of all in the poorest states of the South and Appalachia -- Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi and Kentucky). Even in New York City, adult obesity levels go up by 300 percent once you venture north of 96th Street. It doesn't do much good to proselytize about the value of apples if you've got to take two buses in order to buy them.

If parents in Beverly Hills have a hard time keeping their kids away from Happy Meals, what chance does a kid in Roxbury have, especially when Mickey D and the local bodega might represent his only food choices?

The "War on Drugs" -- stupidly executed, badly envisioned, ineffectively managed and ultimately doomed -- still gets traction as a concept because the selling of heroin, cocaine and crystal meth is outside the mainstream economy. Railing against the dealers buys you, as Flaubert put it, "a tasty morsel for your conscience" at no real cost. No one's going to defend the sleazoid dealing pot to your kid at the schoolyard.

But when the purveyors of destruction are the same folks who keep the economy running, it's a whole different ballgame.

To really get "serious" in the war on obesity is a revolutionary act. The bad actors are the very folks who hold the GDP in their hot little corporate hands. A government mandate against Pepsi, McDonald's, Coca Cola, and General Foods is about as likely to happen as an official Dick Cheney statement supporting energy independence from Exxon.

This whole issue is made even more thorny by the intersection and overlap of distinct American values. Personal responsibility and freedom of choice really do matter, but so does protecting a fairly unsophisticated and vulnerable population from aggressive marketing of complete crap. (According to updated data from Kelly Brownell of Yale, the average kid is exposed to roughly 30,000 television commercials a year, 95% of it for junk food. That's a hard message to overcome in the best of circumstances. When the ability to ignore the message is further circumscribed by social conditions, poverty, the lack of role models and schools whose solvency depends on selling this crap, it's damn near impossible.)

And if you're waiting for Big Food to see the light, I've got an Upton Sinclair quote for you: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

So throwing off the messages of the companies that basically keep the US economy going is, at its core, a revolutionary act. Wheat, corn and sugar are three of the five most subsidized crops in America, and telling people to cut back on them -- or not eat them at all -- is going to be received about as well as a Falun Gong convention in the middle of Tiananmen Square. We may not massacre the messengers, but we can make them irrelevant -- just trot out the always-at-the-ready spokespeople from the American Dietetic Association who can be counted on to protect the status quo no matter how much they have to torture the data ("M&M's can be part of a healthy low-fat diet"). Where's Thomas ("She Blinded Me With Science") Dolby when you need him?

Eating well -- eating real food, slow food, home-cooked food, food that could be hunted, fished, plucked or gathered and shunning the 'food products" the economy runs on is never going to become official food policy. Even if it were, the economics of doing so puts it out of the reach of the majority of people on the planet. Eating well is a revolution that's going to have to be fought one household, one table, one meal at a time.

Admittedly, on a scale of critical global priorities, throwing out your Captain Krunch doesn't quite rate as high as ending genocide by rape in Darfur.

But rejecting the mainstream messages of Big Food is still a revolutionary act.

And it's one revolutionary action we can't afford not to take.

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